A Penetration Tester's Toolkit
Ever wonder exactly how vulnerable your network is? Using these tools can give you an idea and provide the means to protect yourself.
I don't know about you, but during the years of my IT career, I've become more and more concerned with security. I'm sure everyone has to a certain degree, but for me, it has become a daily part of my job (not that I'm complaining; on the contrary, it's quite exciting). As such, there are a multitude of tools I've used to get said job done. Some I like, and some I don't. But, I keep coming back to three in particular: Nmap, Nessus and Metasploit.
In this article, I introduce these three tools at a high level to give you an idea of how to use them and what to use them for. I also provide some examples from my own experiences to better explain how I use these tools (and how you could possibly use them) in the real world.
Nmap is my go-to tool when beginning my investigations on systems. Nmap has enjoyed quite a long life, starting back in 1997. It's a scanning tool that allows you to perform various tasks, such as remote scanning, fingerprinting, monitoring, inventory and other such functions. It utilizes various techniques like packet manipulation to get the answers to questions like the types of operating systems in use or the version of Web serving software that's running on a target. It's great information if you are to protect your network successfully.
The next tool in my bag is Metasploit. Metasploit has come a long way since its creation in early 2003. Metasploit is a framework for developing and testing vulnerabilities (these are its core functions; its features seem almost limitless at times). It's a great tool for testing server security (just be sure to use test servers, because you never know when code could crash a box).
Finally, the last (but certainly not least) tool in my bag is Nessus. Nessus is a scanner similar to Nmap and has been around almost as long (since 1998). However, Nessus is capable of running vulnerability code against a machine like Metasploit (whereas Metasploit can be used both to develop and run exploitation code), but at a much simpler level. In fact, that's Nessus' strong point; it's easy to use, like Nmap, and it has some of the strengths of Metasploit. Depending on the situation, I may use one or all of these tools, which brings me to a good point—duplication.
Redundant features aren't bad. For example, each one of these tools are capable of doing basic scans. However, you will find that Nmap runs the fastest and offers the least intrusive scanning method. These are the things to consider when taking into account each of these tool's features and how to best use them.
Regardless of the duplicating features in these tools, take the time to learn each tool's individual features to find what works best for you. You might discover that although Nmap is fast, you like the idea of scanning and exploiting with Nessus (all in one step, if you will). You might like the simplicity of Nessus but need the strength of Metasploit (for scripting and grouping tests together). Even though they all get the job done, it depends on your situation as to how you use these tools.
The first thing to do is install these tools. Because this article is in Linux Journal, I assume you're running this on a Linux platform, but all of these tools work on Windows as well. You could install these tools from your repositories, but I recommend going to each tool's Web site and installing from its packages (this ensures that you get the latest version with all current fixes and gives you the best success for installation).
Installation is pretty straightforward; just follow the steps from each tool's respective site, and you'll be fine. As soon as the tools are installed, it's time to start playing with them. I highly recommend that you have either a virtual machine or a test machine of some sort as your first target, so as not to crash anything critical. Nothing's worse than running a scan against a box, only to find out that you crashed it by accident (very high possibility with Nessus and Metasploit, depending on what you are doing) and interrupted someone's work.
For the purpose of this article, I'm going to set up an example scenario. I am going to use a virtual machine with Windows XP (SP3) loaded on it to run these three tools against. This machine will be a fresh install with no patches and the firewall disabled. The reason for this, quite simply, is to be realistic when running these scans. More often than not, I have come across this very machine, sitting in a corner, collecting dust and running some sort of old-mission-critical app (I'm sure you've encountered something similar). Especially in large environments, these machines are very easy to forget about and can give you the biggest amount of trouble. I have configured the host machine to use an IP of 192.168.56.1, and the guest machine to use an IP of 192.168.56.101.
Figure 1. Windows XP Machine
Figure 2. Scanning Machine
Let's start with Nmap to begin the information-gathering stage (you have to know what you're working with) on your target. Because you know the IP of the machine in question, you don't have to but just as easily could run a scan against a subnet or some other subset of IP addresses. For this article, let's stick with 192.168.56.101. In your terminal, run the following (remember that you can run this command as a regular user on the machine, as long as said user has access to /usr/bin/):
nmap -sV -A -v 192.168.56.101 > /tmp/nmap-output
I always send the output to a file, as it's easier to read through afterward. Before delving into the output, however, let's look at those switches:
-sV— this tells Nmap the type of scan. In this case, it's a version scan to see what programs are running on what ports (where available).
-A— this tells Nmap to run a fingerprint check. This means Nmap will attempt to identify the version of the OS and any related information correctly.
-v— verbosity—this is important, as you need this to get critical information from Nmap.
When it comes to tools like Nmap, man pages are your friend. Remember that these tools are extremely complex and have a lot of functions, and that means a lot of switches. When in doubt, always refer to the man pages, lest you use the wrong switch and accidentally crash a box (easily done with tools like Nessus).
Matthew Agle is a 30-year-old senior architect. When he's not focusing on work, hacking, security, his blog or various other hobbies, he can be found playing with his kids and generally annoying his wife.